There must be a
point at which the sky meets the earth - horizon. Though it is not
possible to tell where that point is. Wandering (on a motorbike) in an
expanse of Punjab bordering Azad Kashmir, one can see ahead up to horizon
through a blanket of dull light covering the green fields and occasional
villages that are spread along the Dina-Mangla-Mirpur Road. Under the
sun's watchful gaze, the valley between Mangla and Mirpur is normally
quilted in a hundred different hues of green. Short ride through the
valley is wonderful and revealing.
The construction of the Mangla Dam reservoir, one of the baggiest earth
filled reservoir in the world, which has a perimeter of 400 Kilometres,
has turned into a place of interest and recreation, very restful and
clean. A building situated on the lakeside serves as a historical
backdrop. My journey to Mirpur on motorbike started from Mangla Water
Sports Club where earlier the speedboat had been ferrying me (and a few
others) across the blue sheet of the artificial lake to its northern
extremity. Here somewhere, before the construction of the Dam, the Poonch
River coming down from the northeast met with the bigger Jhelum River
coming straight down from the north.
Then, the road to Mirpur had recently been resurfaced and even at forty
miles per hour, the gravel seems to take on liquidity. Keeping the bike
from sliding out from under me was
impossible. The opposite side of the road was free of chippings but was
carpeted with potholes. The lesser of the two evils was to cross over and
avoid these littered craters and the occasional oncoming vehicle.
Whichever side of the road I choose, there was no refuge from the hail of
gravel that rained down on me as the bloated local buses growled on.
With limbs protruding from windows and an eclectic assortment of
possessions and sacks of commodities strapped loosely to the roof, these
old vintage monsters took on a manic life of their own. Between two
dangerously positioned potholes, I shifted down from fourth to third gear
with my left heel to accelerate back to my cruising speed. As I twisted
with my right hand, I hunched down my head and shoulders in a primitive
attempt at streamlining myself against the rushing air. I focused ahead,
trying not to contemplate the fatal potential of unavoidable potholes.
What was more, I saw it was about to rain. Rain is no fun to bike in on
our country roads, but it did not worry me as much as the dark. Night
falls by six o'clock at the time of year I was traveling in this part of
the countryside, but that day's lack of light meant an even earlier dusk.
The pothole's menace was to increase manifolds after the sun set behind
Now I was in Azad Kashmir (AK). And in AK one can not only see but also
feel and smell Kashmir everywhere. The locals are amazing people.
Resilient! Many have faced adversities and oppressions in the past for
being Muslims and Kashmiris. There are many secrets hidden behind those
silent smiles --secrets and strengths. In my experience, the Kashmiri
people go to extremes to ensure their hospitality is perfect. I slowed
down as I pass a picturesque village -- carefully constructed modest and
some modern abodes with various kaleidoscopic colors of rustic life.
the village was almost behind me, I stopped to take a photo of the scene.
The compass needle of my mind swung and I realized that the track must
lead to the river. I share with many other travelers the overpowering urge
to take the perfect picture, that one image to sum it up, to capture it
all. No need to try and reach for the words, only to lose grip and land on
mediocrity. I decide to leave the road and head down the enigmatic track.
The looming threat of the gray sky forgotten, replaced by fantasies of
taking photos as evocative and timeless. As I turned left, the road was
immediately replaced by a rutted and dusty track. I shifted down to second
gear, knowing that balance and acceleration will be of far more use than
speed. As I passed the three children from the village on their bicycles,
I sounded the horn. Despite six legs pedaling furiously to keep up with
me, even at my slowest, I lose them quickly. The track slops downward on
gentle gradient, bends and there it is - the road abruptly ends as it is
intersected by dark blue running water - the River Jhelum.
Back on Mangla-Mirpur Road, one passes the occasional house and makeshift
tea stalls but other than that, all one sees are fields. The low mountains
that run some time parallel to the road some time seem straight ahead. I
started to feel the odd drops of rain. The drops were becoming more
frequent and in a short time, I was under a torrential downpour. As I sat
with the motorcycle in neutral, the options were: head for Mirpur in the
rain or remain there and get soaked whilst hoping it stopped. And if it
does not stop, riding to Mirpur in the dark and rain and that is the time
I wished to sit in a vehicle, dry, with four wheels planted firmly on the
ground and maybe a hot cup of tea in my hands. I quickly purged such
thoughts. There was no choice but to keep on, balancing with my feet,
walking the motorcycle through a particularly treacherous stretch of road.
I concentrated so intently on this muddy task that I could not weigh up
the situation till without warning the rain ended as abruptly as it had
The roads were
washed clean and drying following the rainstorm when I entered the town
situated at 459 meters above sea level and linked with the Grand Trunk
Road at Dina. The town, not so much of a market, is well planned and the
buildings are mostly of modern design. Mirpur is developing into an
industrial city very rapidly. Textile, vegetable ghee, logging and
sawmills, soap, cosmetics, marble, ready-made garments, matches, rosin,
turpentine and motorbikes manufacturing industrial units have already been
established in the area.
Mirpur comprises partly plain and partly hilly areas. Its hot climate and
other geographical conditions closely resemble those of Jhelum and Gujrat,
the adjoining districts. The people of this area are basically farmers.
Since the 1960s, a large number of people from this district have gone
abroad, especially to the United Kingdom and the Middle East, for economic
reasons. As such they are today the major foreign exchange earning source
for Azad Kashmir and Pakistan. Around 50,000 people were moved from the
area in the mid-sixties to make way for the construction of Mangla Dam.
Most of these people settled in new Mirpur whilst some moved elsewhere as
far as 'Walayat' as United Kingdom is called in this area.
AK is the countryside one would like to get lost in, exploring slopes,
hiking along ridges and riding down the bowls in natural, alpine and
pollution free environments. No hurrying up. Maybe any cultural
anthropologist can just watch people's behavior going about little chores
of life. Whether it is viewing a family working in fields or watching a
young one selling fruit on roadside, "there is much to be learned from
non-active participation," as anthropologists Petty Ferguson would say. Or
to switch roles, as many will realize in a place like AK, it is actually
the traveler that is the one being watched intently by hundreds of curious
eyes with so many questions?